Pursuing Your Degree in Europe
by Adam Muri-Rosenthal, Ph.D.
American students are certainly no strangers to study abroad. Prior to the pandemic, nearly 350,000 US students per year chose—whether for a week, a summer, a semester, or more—to engage in academic study at institutions located outside the United States (NAFSA), primarily in Europe. The far lower number of students who choose to pursue their entire degree abroad belies the immensely compelling options available and the advantages germane to degree programs in Europe. Indeed the European educational tradition dates back centuries prior to the discovery of the New World. Its oldest university, the University of Bologna, is over 900 years old (it was founded in 1088) and counts among its alumni Dante, Petrarch, and Copernicus! Perhaps it should go without saying, but the quality of education available in Europe is unquestionably second to none. If you are curious about what pursuing a degree in Europe entails, you’ve come to the right place! While this information is directed primarily towards US students, its general overview of degree programs in Europe—as well as of the advantages and disadvantages of studying there—will be of use to any student evaluating the prospect of a European education.
Types of European Universities
This list will focus on degree programs offered in English. Although non-English language options abound and may be appropriate for students with fluency in another language, there are increasing numbers of English-language options and it is these that will be of interest to the vast majority of US students. Having specified this, European degree options can be divided into three categories:
- Degree Programs in English-Speaking Countries. Among the easiest universities to attend for US students, both in terms of application process and similarity to the US experience, are universities in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland. Both the UK and the Republic of Ireland have numerous universities, many of them quite prestigious, that offer educations of the highest quality. With the exception of the four-year degrees offered by Scottish institutions, a typical Bachelor’s degree has a duration of three years. Oftentimes this comes with the option of a fourth year for students who wish to include a year engaging in study abroad, a job placement, or a one-year Master’s degree. It should be noted that applicants in the UK and the Republic of Ireland apply to a specific course of study (major). These programs are thus most appropriate for students who have already chosen their field.
- English-Taught Programs at European-Style Universities. Even in countries where English is not the national language, English is increasingly the language of instruction for institutions throughout Europe seeking to increase their international appeal. While Germany and the Netherlands have particularly ample offerings in this regard, universities in other European nations (IE in Spain and Bocconi in Italy, to name a couple) are beginning to catch on.
- American-Style Universities Abroad. Recognizing the appeal of a European experience combined with the familiarity of an American one, there are many universities throughout Europe that offer a four-year US-style college experience. These tend to be smaller schools of between 500 and 2000 students that include the same sort of housing, extracurriculars, and student services familiar to US students. Most of them accept the Common Application for admissions and the FAFSA for financial aid. While this list is far from exhaustive, some of the most famous US-style universities in Europe are the American University of Paris, the American University of Rome and John Cabot University (both in Rome), the Anglo American University of Prague, and St. Louis University Madrid.
Advantages of Pursuing a Degree in Europe
The advantages of pursuing a degree in Europe are various and each country offers its own particular character and charm. Below I have enumerated a few more of the advantages commonly found at universities throughout the European continent.
- Location, Location, Location. The array of European cultural offerings is, quite frankly, dizzying. Italy, for instance, boasts the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the entire world. While China holds the second spot, the next three are occupied by Germany, France, and Spain—in that order. One could truly spend a lifetime traveling through Europe and never see it all. Once in Europe, thanks to the existence of an extensive rail network and low-cost airlines, traveling from one place to the next is remarkably easy even for students on a budget.
- Cost. One of the most salient advantages of pursuing a degree in Europe is the financial one. Degree programs in Europe are almost universally less expensive than in the US. In Germany, for instance, many public institutions are tuition-free. The Anglo American University of Prague costs just over $8,000 a year, while the American University of Rome charges $25,000 a year which is more typical of this type of institution. In the UK, tuition can be more expensive and depends on the degree program in question. At the University of Cambridge (among the more expensive options), a degree in the humanities costs around $30,000 a year while degrees in Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine cost more. Still, when compared to the $50,000 tuition of Harvard (an institution of similar caliber), the difference is clear. Perhaps more importantly, most European Bachelor’s degrees are only three years long—thus even where annual tuition costs are equal to those of a US institution, the total cost of the degree program is 25% less. Yet tuition is not the only factor at play when it comes to cost. Applicants must also consider the cost of living, which in many European cities is lower than that in their American counterparts. A room in an apartment in Dijon, France, for instance, can cost as little as $250 a month. Generally speaking, however, the larger the city, the greater the cost of living, and this is certainly no less true in Europe than it is in the US. Having said this, although metropolises like London and Paris can rival New York in terms of cost of living, cities in the South of Europe such as Rome and Madrid tend to be less expensive.
- Professional Focus. While students in the US often spend their first year or two completing General Education or Core requirements, the reduced length of most degrees in Europe means that they tend to focus from day one on material that is directly relevant to their course of study (and careers in the field).
- Ease of Application. Though processes for applying to European universities vary by country and by institution, they are often far simpler both in terms of application length and requirements. All university degree applications in the UK are submitted through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). The website provides quick, easy, and searchable information about degree programs throughout the UK. Students may apply to five programs through the UCAS application, which is significantly simpler than the US Common Application. Speaking of the Common Application, some European institutions accept it, among them nearly all of the US-style universities abroad, the University of St. Andrews, and a handful of others. Also of note, application deadlines for European universities tend to be later. UCAS applications are due in late January (with a few exceptions, such as for those applying to Oxford, Cambridge, or programs in Medicine, all of which are due several months earlier). Many European institutions have rolling admissions and accept applicants right up to the beginning of the term, though earlier application provides both an admissions advantage and time for those requiring a visa to obtain it.
Disadvantages of Pursuing a Degree in Europe
While the advantages of pursuing a degree in Europe are ample, it is not without disadvantages and any prospective applicant must consider them as well.
- Flexibility (or lack thereof). While a shorter degree program brings both cost savings and greater focus on one’s discipline, it also means that switching to another program (without starting over from the beginning) can be difficult. Students considering three-year options (i.e. most programs, with the notable exceptions of the US-style and Scottish institutions), should keep this in mind.
- University Experience. Whether this particular aspect of the European university experience is a disadvantage or not will depend on the perspective of each individual student: the student experience in Europe tends to be significantly different from that of students at US institutions of higher education. European institutions are focused largely on the quality of the academic experience. While in the US, athletics, extracurriculars, and student support are robust and offerings abundant, in Europe, students will find university-sponsored offerings far more limited. This does not mean, however, that they do not exist. On the contrary, what is generally referred to as student life (or campus life) is often woven directly into the life of the cities themselves, the businesses and cultural centers of which cater to the student population. In no way does this mean that the offerings are less rich. Rather, they are more student-driven, and consequently, European universities tend to foster (and require) greater independence on the part of their students. This can be difficult for students with little experience fending for themselves or who may require greater institutional support.
- Bureaucracy. With the exception of those students lucky enough to be dual US/EU or US/UK citizens, those studying in Europe will require a visa and/or residency permit in order to do so. The process for obtaining this can be more or less onerous depending on the country, but generally speaking, the university assists with this process. In most cases, we recommend that students begin the visa application process at least three months before the school year begins.
- Distance. Any US students studying in Europe will inevitably deal with the question of distance. The distance from Boston to London is about 1000 miles more than from Boston to Los Angeles, but at the end of the day, there isn’t a great difference between a 5 and a 7 hour flight—far more arduous is the need to get on an airplane at all. Yet this is certainly a factor that families must consider: parents will likely want to visit their children while they are at school and children will want to travel home for the holidays. Even the additional costs of travel, however, are unlikely to offset the cost savings of the degree program itself.
Language Barrier or Language Opportunity?
While not an issue (or far less of one) in the UK, students who choose to study in Europe, even at one of the many institutions in which instruction is offered in English, will need some mastery of the local language. Luckily for US students, English remains the lingua franca throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and will thus suffice for most situations. Students who choose to study in large urban centers like Madrid or Rome (or smaller cities frequented by tourists) will be able to make do with English. However, making an effort to learn and use the local language, even when not strictly necessary, will change the way you are regarded by the local population and will immeasurably enrich your experience. Many institutions encourage students’ efforts to do so by offering free (in some cases even requiring) instruction in the local language. Even when it is not required, I cannot recommend highly enough taking advantage of this. The easiest way to master a second language is by living in a place where it is regularly spoken, and the life-changing delights that result from doing so cannot be overstated.
Pursuing a degree in Europe may appear to require uncommon independence and spirit of adventure. Indeed, for many American students, it constitutes a greater leap into the unfamiliar than they have ever experienced. Yet it is in this very fact that so much of its transformational value resides: why settle for an education imparted principally in the classroom when the world itself can also be your classroom? The potential for personal growth that results from living in and learning from a culture different from your own is simply incalculable. Furthermore, as significant as the cost and time savings can be, it should also go without saying that the European educational experience rivals the American every but as much in terms of cost as in terms of prestige and quality. Given all of these factors, perhaps the question should not be, “Why would you study in Europe?” but rather, “Why wouldn’t you?”
The following are additional resources for those wanting to learn more about pursuing their degrees in Europe. Although this list is far from exhaustive, it provides a good starting place for exploring the most prominent English-language degree options in Europe.
- The University and Colleges Admission Service (commonly referred to as UCAS) is the UK’s equivalent of the Common Application. It has a searchable database of all degree programs in the UK.
- Education in Ireland provides information about degree programs in the Republic of Ireland.
- American Universities Abroad is a consortium of US-style universities in Europe with links to information about each of its member institutions.
- The Association of American International Colleges and Universities is a similar group, with members throughout the world.
- CampusFrance provides comprehensive information about studying France and the institutions themselves.
- The German Academic Exchange Service offers a searchable database of international degree programs in Germany.
- Study in Holland includes information on and a searchable database of degree programs in the Netherlands.
Interested in pursuing your degree abroad? Contact us for a free consultation!
NOTE: This article first appeared here on the website of our colleagues at Distinctive College Consulting.